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The Rediff Special/ Usha Bhagat
The day Sonia wed
February 25, 2006
Thirty-eight years ago on February 25, Rajiv Gandhi wed a shy, Italian girl, with warm, doe eyes, at 1, Safdarjung Road in New Delhi in a simple ceremony.
Sonia Maino was her name.
Who could have predicted Then that nearly four decades later she would become the most powerful woman in India?
Usha Bhagat -- who worked closely with her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, and once worked in the nursery school, where Rajiv studied -- recalls the arrival of Sonia into the Gandhi family:
Rajiv returned from the UK to India in 1967. Although he studied engineering there, he decided to become a pilot. When he started the flying lessons, I was very worried and would say that flying as a hobby is all right, but as a profession it is dangerous. He would smile and say that something can happen even while crossing a road.
Sonia's father was not particularly keen on Sonia marrying Rajiv, not because he did not like Rajiv, but his daughter going to a distant land and culture must have worried him. I think he was also concerned at Rajiv being the prime minister's son. Nobody could have imagined then the situations which developed later. Unconsciously perhaps the father's concern had a point.
Sonia thus waited to complete her 21st birthday in December 1967 and arrived in Delhi in early January 1968. She was put up with the Bachchans at their Willingdon Crescent house, though she spent the day at 1 Safdarjang Road.
After a week or two, Mrs Gandhi realised that both were very serious and there was not much point in waiting; their going around would only encourage gossip. Towards the end of January, their engagement took place and the wedding was fixed for February 25.
Although it was a simple civil marriage, Mrs Gandhi took an interest in the minute details of all arrangements for both the sides, the bride's and the bridegroom's. The following slip I found with her instructions conveys this:
My colleague Amie Crishna would tease her that instead of one, she had three mothers-in-law. As I myself had noticed earlier, Mrs Gandhi took quite some time to be free with people. It was so with Sonia, too. One day Mrs Gandhi left a long letter for Sonia expressing her views, some critical, on certain things. Sonia arrived in our room very distressed, and almost in tears; she could not understand why Mrs Gandhi could not talk to her rather than write a letter.
I told Sonia that Mrs Gandhi often found it difficult to communicate and said that if she had left letters for her father and husband as well, Sonia should not mind this form of communication. For quite a long time Sonia was very shy and most reluctant to go before or mix with people whom she did not know. It used to be quite a job to persuade her.
As the children were growing up, I could see the difference between them. Rahul was naïve and carefree, while Priyanka knew her mind and was very poised from the beginning. She would hardly get into trouble, but Rahul often did; the grandmother then was very protective towards him. I used to enjoying watching her with her grandchildren.
Ms Bhagat was a kindergarten teacher who gave up her job to become Indira Gandhi's secretary and worked closely with her for about 31 years, attending to personal and official matters. She witnessed Indira Gandhi's happiest and saddest moments and had a close view of the life of India's only woman prime minister. She lives in the capital and has been associated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.
Photographs: India Abroad Archives and from Indiraji: Through My Eyes
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